My wife recently surprised me with tickets to the Smashing Pumpkins reunion tour, and as such I’ve naturally been compelled to revisit their catalog. For the longest time I’ve proclaimed that the band’s 1993 breakthrough Siamese Dream was my favorite Pumpkins album, but right now I’m thinking it might actually be Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
In October of 1988, Sonic Youth released Daydream Nation, an album littered with references to the speculative cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson. While I have never read Gibson’s work (though I have seen the god-awful film adaptation Johnny Mnemonic), it is my understanding that his writing predicted many of the technological and cultural developments we now take for granted, including the ubiquitous influence of computers and the Internet on our daily lives. Just as Gibson’s writings predicted these developments in technology, so too did Daydream Nation predict developments in rock music; if there is such a thing as “speculative music,” then surely Sonic Youth’s sprawling masterpiece (and really their early career as a whole) falls squarely into this category.
L7’s Bricks are Heavy came out twenty-five years ago today in 1992, the same year that I became a teenager. Needless to say, when I first heard the Los Angeles based quartet they were a goddamn revelation; my Midwest-living, Catholic school-attending ignorant ass didn’t even realize that women who liked heavy music existed, let alone women who played heavy music.
Whether you like it or not, you might as well just accept the fact that in 2013, the most interesting black metal is being released on cassette. Case in point; Lord Time’s Drink My Tears, a lengthy, mesmerizing odyssey of USBM at it’s most psychedelically fucked up that’s almost impossible to stop listening to once you’ve let its bloodstained anti-hymns corrode your brain.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my couch watching the Bad Religion episode of Guitar Center Sessions. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the show, it consists of the band playing their “hits” in an intimate setting interspersed with interview segments. As I watched Greg Graffin, Brett Gurewitz and Co. rip through “Generator” and “21st Century Digital Boy,” all I could think is “goddamn they look old.” The same thing occurred to me when I watched Animal Underworld, Henry Rollins’ new show on Nat Geo (which is fucking awesome, by the way). Sure, Rollins looks like he could still kick the living shit out of just about any mere mortal, but his hair is mostly grey and his face is showing the kinds of craggy lines that only come with advancing age. He definitely doesn’t look the same as when I started going apeshit over Rollins Band videos on MTV in junior high, or even when I saw him speak at my college.
Helmet’s Meantime was an odd bird when it was released in 1992. Straddling the line between heavy metal and the alternative rock explosion that Nirvana had ushered in a year earlier, Helmet was probably the only band capable of getting airtime on both Headbanger’s Ball and 120 Minutes. That’s how I discovered Helmet; I was thirteen years old and just beginning my headlong dive into the world of heavy music. I remember seeing the video for “Unsung” and being struck by several things: 1) the riffage was absolutely crushing 2) no one in the band had long hair 3) was that a fucking pink ESP?! Helmet looked and most importantly sounded like no other band I had encountered up to that point.
In 1994 I was a freshman in high school. A good boy who followed the rules, got good grades and showed up to work on time… on the outside. On the inside I was a fucking maniac, an animal caged inside a pressure-cooker that wanted to kill, fuck or destroy everything in sight. A ball of hormones and confusion, tightly wrapped in a nice little Catholic school attending, grocery bagging for $4.65 an hour package. I couldn’t wear my black jeans and Metallica shirt to Catholic school, I didn’t have the strength or the self-confidence to stand up to the privileged, pampered, future white collar asshole scumbags of America that ran the place and I definitely didn’t have the courage to be anything more than friends with the ladies.
But alone in my room, cranking Weight on my first stereo at as close to top volume as I could get away with, yelling along with Henry Rollins:
“You’re pathetic and weak / You’re a fake and you lie / I’d like to crush you like an insect / But I don’t want to do the time / Do you really want to confront me? / Do you really want to deal with me? / No! / I didn’t think so!” – “Step Back”
I felt ten fucking feet tall. I felt like Rollins was speaking directly to the war going on inside my head, like maybe at some point he too had been a scrawny little nothing that quietly went about his daily business, keeping his head down and trying not to draw too much attention to himself, all the while wishing he could be something more, wishing he had the stones to “fuck on the floor and break shit” (to borrow a phrase from the man himself, see the Henry Rollins – Up For It DVD).
Of course, it also helped that the musical backdrop for Rollins’ vein-popping pep talks was an incredibly rich one. In fact, referring to the music as a backdrop is to do it a great disservice. Rollins Band drew from the entire spectrum of sound as I knew it at the time; rock, metal, prog, blues, funk, punk/hardcore, Weight had it all in spades, making for an album that was crushing but also funky and danceable in some bizzaro-world kind of way, all without sounding silly or contrived. These were men that held Black Sabbath’s apocalyptic doom dirges and George Clinton’s bop gun-fuelled freak-outs in equal esteem. Chris Haskett, Sim Cain and Melvin Gibbs played with the same intensity and conviction that Rollins put into his words, a perfect soundtrack for raging hormones, sexual frustration and a pent up desire for reckless abandon that an existence in the bowels of the Midwest could never hope to gratify.
Even today Weight is an inspiring album for me. Being a little older and wiser(?), I have a better understanding (I think) of where Rollins was coming from with his lyrics, as well as a deeper appreciation of the vast ocean of musical influences Haskett, Cain and Gibbs were drawing from/destroying with. When the pressures of my everyday existence (corporate job, crazy relatives, bills to pay, etc) start to get me down, I still find myself reaching for Weight, still trying to find “grace in times of friction”.
In case you were wondering, yes, this was at least partially inspired by the recent Invisible Oranges interview w/ former Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs, which can be read HERE.
If you’re still feeling nostalgic like I am, here are the two well known music videos from Weight, for the songs “Disconnect” and of course “Liar”.